Puzzle of a Downfall Child (Schatzberg, 1970)

Jerry Schatzberg began his run of great 1970s films with his debut Puzzle of a Downfall Child.  Not quite at the level of his masterpiece Scarecrow (1973), Puzzle is still a really intriguing look at depression and features great performances from Faye Dunaway and Barry Primus in particular (speaking of great runs: Dunaway from 1967 to 1976 includes, among others, Bonnie and Clyde, Puzzle, Chinatown, and Network).

I’m assuming that the narrative of Puzzle comes from Schatzberg’s background as a photographer.  Dunaway plays Lou Andreas Sand, a famous model who might be schizophrenic.  Schatzberg structures the film in flashback, occasionally jumping around in time as Lou’s mind darts back and forth between short memories and digressions.

Here’s one of the many strategies we see in the film (maybe slightly reminiscent of Cinema Paradiso‘s famous denouement.  Lou talks to her therapist about her past loves:

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Schatzberg then cut to a scene – already discussed earlier in the film – from The Scarlet Empress.  As Marelene Dietrich goes in for the kiss-

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-Schatzberg cuts to a quick black and white recreation of Lou in her dressing room, complete with wind rippling through her hair, before going back to The Scarlet Empress to complete the lips locking:

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It’s a great usage of von Sternberg’s film, playing up the idea of fantasy as it exists in Lou’s mind.  Note that the kiss can’t reach it’s conclusion in her fabricated past, but that we must cut back to The Scarlet Empress to see lips meet, as though Lou can’t discern between the two.

Here’s another one of my favorite scenes, that utilizes a different sort of editing strategy.  Lou talks to her once-lover, friend, and photographer Aaron (Primus). We start in the dressing room mirror, and then Schatzberg pans to the two in a medium 2-shot:

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There’s then a hard cut to Aaron and his girlfriend kissing-

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-which immediately whip pans over to find Lou in a close-up watching (she didn’t know he had a girlfriend):

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The quick cut followed directly by the fast pan is so effective.  It’s a nice time ellipsis that makes it seem as sudden to us as it probably does to Lou (he leaves the dressing room and boom, he’s kissing a girl).  Finding Lou in close-up as opposed to the medium wide we see Aaron and girlfriend in is also great – at first the shot feels like a POV, but then we end by finding ourselves watching Lou in the same way that she’s watching them.

Schatzberg has some nice framing tricks to.  This is a small one, but I loved it.  Aaron has a conversation with Lou, though we can only hear her voice and see a man’s back:

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The man – her hairdresser – finally moves (nearly a minute into the scene), to reveal that she’s right next to Aaron.

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It’s simple and fun.  If you want to find subtext it’s there – she’s lost, hidden, etc.  Or, it might just be that it’s an interesting way to compose a shot.


About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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4 Responses to Puzzle of a Downfall Child (Schatzberg, 1970)

  1. Pingback: Top 15 Films of 2013 | dcpfilm

  2. Pingback: A Safe Place (Jaglom, 1971) | dcpfilm

  3. Pingback: Sweet Revenge (Schatzberg, 1976) | dcpfilm

  4. Pingback: The Arrangement (Kazan, 1969) | dcpfilm

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